Luis Buñuel’s finest Mexican film of the 1950s is Nazarín, from the novel by Benito Pérez Galdós. A priest pursues the way of Jesus in Porfirio Diaz’s Mexico
Father Nazario, who lives amongst the poor, is pure of heart. He charitably gives away whatever is charitably given him. He is matter-of-fact about being repeatedly robbed. “The blessed one,” as his landlady sarcastically calls him, is defrocked once he protects a wanted prostitute. When he works for bread as part of a road labor crew, his fellow workers, needing to be paid, oust him. The prostitute becomes his disciple, touting his ability to perform “miracles” even as he insists only “God and science” can save the life of a dying child.
Nazarín is a road film by foot. The pride Don Nazario takes in his humility and devotion is matched by the pride in arrogance the collusion of Church and State manifests. No matter how righteously Don Nazario’s “saintly” virtue sets him apart, there is no “him” separate from the institutional influences his faith and lifestyle humbly contest. Social behavior, even the most solitudinous and outstanding, hence seemingly individualistic, is overdetermined. Like Fellini in La strada (1954), Buñuel challenges the fiction of self-determination. Beings must reach out to fellow and sister beings with compassion and equality—neither lowly nor in condescension—in order to be human.
The film is superbly written by Buñuel and Julio Alejandro, and shot after shot sets Don Nazario in a harsh landscape that is correlative to both his unconscious courting of martyrdom and the difficult road he needs to hoe in his pilgrim’s progress. For now, he appears human only by contrast to the corrupt Church and Mexico’s resident dictatorship, which conspire to maintain the poverty generating the miserable souls to whom he ministers.
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